Councilwoman Toni Atkins called in today to explain her change of heart during Tuesday’s appointment of a port commissioner, when she very visibly withdrew her support for Laurie Black in favor of Stephen Cushman once it appeared that the council was deadlocked in a 4-4 tie.

To recap the finale to Tuesday’s vote:

  • The City Council needed five votes in order to waive its term-limits policy, which the City Attorney’s Office advised as necessary before Cushman could serve a third term on the Port Commission. The waiver failed by a 4-4 vote, with Atkins voting against it.
  • With only Black remaining as a nominee, the council voted on her appointment. Atkins and three others voted for her, falling one vote short.
  • With no candidate remaining on the floor, Atkins motioned to reconsider the waiver so Cushman can be nominated, and the council accepted.
  • A second vote was then taken on the term-limits waiver, and this time it passed 5-3, with Atkins voting for it.
  • Councilwoman Donna Frye then reconsidered the vote for Black, and the council accepted.
  • With both candidates eligible for a head-to-head vote at that point, paper ballots were dispensed to council members. Council members filled them out silently and passed them to City Clerk Liz Maland. The clerk tallied up the ballots and announced Cushman’s 5-3 win. Atkins cast the deciding vote for Cushman.

I was curious: Why did Atkins wind up voting against the term-limit policy after expressing her general disinterest in it Tuesday? Here’s what she said about the policy at the meeting:

So the arguments on both sides have been very powerful. I wish I had a philosophical bent on term limits that was as strong as some. I don’t. I think it depends. And I think today, if I thought we didn’t have other good candidates that could serve in this position, I would absolutely be supporting waiving term limits because I think Mr. Cushman has done an incredible job. And if anyone is worthy of serving more than the allotted terms, it is Mr. Cushman.

Today, Atkins said she didn’t support the waiver because her “no” vote on that issue allowed her to gauge her colleagues’ approval for Black, who she favored more than Cushman at the time of the vote.

“I wanted to see if Laurie could get appointed and if she had the votes, and this was the only way to do that,” Atkins said.

Once she saw that Black fell short of the votes, she decided she would change her mind. “I would prefer to see Steve on the port [rather] than to find another candidate,” she said today.

Atkins acknowledged that she had initially told Cushman last year that she would support him, but became torn once Black was nominated in January. She said she walked into the Tuesday’s meeting undecided about whom she would vote for.

“It wasn’t until almost the end of the meeting that I knew I was going to support Laurie,” she said.

When asked to point to point a specific speaker or comment that swayed her, Atkins declined. “It just sort of clicked in my gut,” she said.

Atkins pointed out that it was hard to choose between the two flavors of supporters that were cheering on their nominees. Atkins noted that she is aspiring to run for the 76th Assembly seat in 2010, when Assemblywoman Lori Salda&ntidle;a would be termed out under the current rules. Each candidate was endorsed by several groups and activists that she said she hopes to have backing her when she runs.

“What was difficult about this was the pressure coming from a very similar set of values,” she said today. “When you see labor democrats, environmentalists going different ways, and clearly you see people on both sides that you respect, it was extremely difficult.”

But, she said, she decided, “In the end, it’s the sort of thing where you have to do what’s in front of you and let tomorrow take care of itself.”

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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